Young, French and Hormonal: Two Girls Come of Age in Brittany

Anne-Sophie Birot’s Girls Can’t Swim , from a screenplay by Ms. Birot and Christophe Honoré, breaks some new ground in the currently fashionable rite-of-passage genre for adolescent girls, corresponding to Hollywood’s rite-of-passage genre for adolescent boys (culminating, I suppose in the extraordinarily popular Spider-Man , the über –Andy Hardy of the new millennium-and like its censor-hobbled predecessor, completely chaste).

Girls Can’t Swim is a French film about two 15-year-old girls who are best friends-and perhaps more than that-during summer vacations on the Brittany coast. They are friends even though Gwen lives in Brittany all year round with her mother, Céline (Pascale Bussières), and her fisherman father, Alain (Pascal Elso), whereas Lise comes from a city many miles away and lives with her mother, Anne-Marie (Marie Rivière), and her two older sisters. Lise’s father abandoned the family so early in Lise’s life that she has no memory of him; when news comes from England that he’s been killed in a car crash, she can feel no grief. She thinks only of Gwen and the family’s upcoming vacation. Lise’s mother, however, is so distraught that she cancels the family’s vacation plans. Heartbroken, Lise writes Gwen that she can’t come because her father is taking a vacation in the mountains.

But when Lise’s birthday party is ruined by her mother’s curiously persistent grieving over a dead ex-husband, Lise leaves home to join Gwen and her family in Brittany. Gwen’s mother then telephones Lise’s mother and persuades her to let Lise stay with them. Lise and Gwen resume their summer amusements for a time, but the faster-maturing Gwen has already begun sleeping around with boys, and particularly with one boy, Frédo (Julien Cottereau). One night, Gwen smuggles Frédo into the bedroom she shares with Lise, but when Lise tries to join the love-making so as to express her deep feelings for Gwen, the latter screams her disapproval, and Lise spitefully drives Frédo away by telling him about Gwen’s other sexual encounters. This is too much for Gwen, who tells Lise to leave the house.

While Gwen is out shopping, her father comes upon Lise sobbing uncontrollably. In his efforts to console her, he unleashes forces that will lead eventually to an ironic tragedy that will change the lives of Gwen and Lise forever.

Girls Can’t Swim has been adapted and expanded by Ms. Birot from an earlier short film she wrote and directed, Une Vague Ideé de la Mer (1996), which concerned three 13-year-old girls in a more shocking story of sexual precocity on the Brittany coast. Ms. Birot feels she had “compromised” in her first feature film by making her two female co-protagonists 15 instead of 13. One cannot imagine a Hollywood filmmaker finding 15 years old much less shocking an age for a girl to lose her virginity-though in supposedly more innocent times, Ginger Rogers masqueraded as a 12-year-old out of farcical necessity in Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942).

What sets Ms. Birot’s film apart from others in the genre is a greater attention to the parents-and particularly the fateful fathers-in the emotional evolution of the two bewitched adolescents. There are vacuums to fill in the two families created by ineffectual or totally absent fathers; hormonal eruptions are free to rage, unchecked by paternal supervision.

Ms. Birot seems to know Brittany well, and she avoids like the plague anything smacking of the purely picturesque. The unconventional narrative in her film is also adorned by the complex good looks of newcomers Isild Le Besco as Gwen and Karen Alyx as Lise.

A Digital Revolution

Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke ( L’Anglaise et le Duc ), from his own screenplay and inspired by Grace Elliott’s memoirs Journal of My Life During the French Revolution , showcases a technological innovation that calls as much attention to its limitations as it does to its ultimate potentialities. If you weren’t enchanted, enthralled and exhilarated by the 30-odd cinematic meditations already created by this scrupulously precise stylistic heir of André Bazin, it’s perhaps too late: The 82-year-old Eric Rohmer (born Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer on April 4, 1920, in Nancy, France) won’t win any new adherents with The Lady and the Duke , which presents a politically unfashionable view of the French Revolution. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed the film-to the extent that I can never look at a period film again without thinking back to Mr. Rohmer’s unique reminder of the emptiness of the past in comparison with the overpopulated and overdeveloped present.

The Paris of the 1790′s, with its vacant fields and spaced-out structures, is lost to us forever. The “idea” of Paris as it was a couple of centuries ago is approximated in Mr. Rohmer’s film by 37 backgrounds painted by Jean-Baptiste Marot over a two-year period prior to the beginning of shooting, at which time the characters were keyed into the “sets” by a digital-video process, and the combined images were then transferred to the 35-millimeter print.

Still, the bulk of the film takes place on indoor sets. Film “purists” will, as usual, deplore Mr. Rohmer’s unlimited patience with extended conversation. One may or may not enter into the spirit of Lucy Russell’s Anglaise , Grace Elliott, as she strives single-handedly to persuade Jean-Claude Dreyfus’ Duc d’Orléans to vote to save the life of the doomed Louis XVI. We are a long way from the facile royalist heroics of The Scarlet Pimpernel , but nonetheless Ms. Russell seems sewn into her period costume as if it were a suit of armor. Her unyielding dignity and courage, rather than any feminine wiles, are the weapons she employs to plead her cause and save her head-no mean feat at the height of the Reign of Terror.

The American title, which labels Grace Elliott a “Lady,” may be stretching the point: Though she was a Scottish noblewoman, she was divorced from her husband and then became, successively, the mistress of the Prince of Wales (with an illegitimate daughter to show for it) and the mistress of the Duc d’Orléans, who brought her to France and supported her even after their affair ended. She was more courtesan than lady-but oh, what a dame!

Mr. Rohmer has provided a fascinating historical footnote to the French Revolution, but the French left seems unwilling to accept Mr. Rohmer’s contrarian tendencies and moral dilemmas, even at this late date. Some of us have learned to appreciate his rigorous ironies, the pillars of his exquisitely constructed artistic edifices.

Psycho Cop, Qu’est-ce que C’est ?

Barbet Schroeder’s Murder by Numbers , from a screenplay by Tony Gayton, is nearing the end of its run and it’s well worth catching for its interesting twists on the Leopold and Loeb story. First, the implicit homoerotic attraction between the pair of student killers is now made more poignantly explicit in the mutual-admiration society formed by Ryan Gosling’s Richard Haywood and Michael Pitt’s Justin Pendleton. These two go cynically about the business of planting dead-end clues for detectives Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) and Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin), who ponder the red herrings in frustration.

What is different here is Ms. Bullock’s incarnation of Cassie’s neurotic personality. A psychotic episode in her past narrows the distance between her and the killers, and actually enables her to solve the crime despite the resistance of her superiors, who have been deceived by the planted evidence into fingering the wrong man.

Ms. Bullock has had a very uneven career, but these days for an actress to have any career at all constitutes a considerable achievement. She just plods along as if she were still a contract player for one of the old major studios, showing her gams here and her brains there, always doing the best she can with what is given her, and very gradually gaining the trust of audiences for her often naughty brand of sincerity. Murder by Numbers gives her an opportunity to plunge into the middle of the action like an Amazonian heroine-without losing her moral compass.

Ben Chaplin is also first-rate as her perceptive partner, who leads her to a kind of salvation. Barbet Schroeder must be credited with adding European nuance to the American bang-bang formula, and also with providing an inventive mise en scène for his violent climax.

Fear of Open Spaces

Claire Kilner’s Janice Beard , from a screenplay by Ms. Kilner and Ben Hopkins, represents a frantic attempt to make a modern screwball comedy with a totally unglamorous leading lady, Eileen Walsh, as Janice Beard-gawky and toothsome as all get out, but strangely magnetic for all that. Her back story is, if anything, excessively zany: An only child, her father died of a heart attack as her mother was giving birth; the shock of this turned her mother into an agoraphobic, terrified of ever leaving the house. Janice spends all of her life trying to get her mother to brave the outside world; she even moves to London to earn enough money to pay for a cure for her mother’s illness. You won’t find a character any more sympathetic than that.

With minimal secretarial skills, Janice gets bumped from one temp job to another until a chance meeting with a childhood friend lands her a job in the typing pool of a car company preparing to launch its new model. She falls in love with Sean (Rhys Ifans), a suspiciously handsome office boy who is actually an industrial spy. All ends well, sort of, but the frenzied comic moments never click.